APPLE’S Jade saw off former stable companions Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini in a pulsating climax to the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham yesterday.

Willie Mullins had saddled the last eight winners of the two-and-a-half-mile contest and fired a twin assault in his bid to extend his record, with Ruby Walsh preferring Limini to last year’s heroine Vroum Vroum Mag, the mount of Paul Townend.

Having pipped Vroum Vroum Mag in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse in December before finding Limini too strong at Punchestown last month, former Closutton inmate Apple’s Jade appeared the biggest threat.

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And so it proved, as the Irish trio treated race goers to a barnstorming finish.

Bryan Cooper was the most positive of the three riders, having positioned Gordon Elliott’s charge close to the pace before sending her to the front a mile from home.

The Rich Ricci-owned pair of Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini closed in before the home turn, with Gigginstown House Stud’s Apple’s Jade sandwiched in between them as the three horses knuckled down for a tussle up the famous hill.

For a moment it looked like Vroum Vroum Mag was going best, but Apple’s Jade dug deepest and was ultimately well on top as she passed the post a length and a half to the good, with Limini another nose away in third.

Cooper said: “She’s all heart. We were confident coming here. Gordon’s a genius and I’m very lucky to ride for him.”

“She was tough. We knew that the ground was going to suit her,” said Elliott. “Today was her Gold Cup. I put a tongue-strap on her for the first time today. Today was her day and thankfully it worked out.

“We knew she would have come on a good bit for Punchestown and this was the plan. She is as tough as old boots. She will stay three miles next year. I would imagine we will go to Punchestown.”

Ricci was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “It was a great race. Apple’s Jade is a multi-winning Grade One winner.

“I think she’s a very, very good mare and she wouldn’t be out of place in the Champion Hurdle. I don’t think there are any excuses. It was a great race, unfortunately we were on the losing end.”

Mullins added: “They are running well but have been unlucky.

“Both travelled good into the race and they had their chance. Both ran up to their form. I thought they each ran their race.”

Ireland had earlier got off to a flying start at the Festival as Labaik won the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Trained by Elliott and ridden by rising star Jack Kennedy, 17, the grey six-year-old belied odds of 25-1 to readily deny compatriot and 3-1 favourite Melon by two and a quarter lengths.

“Words can’t describe what it’s like,” Kennedy told ITV Racing. “I was probably a little bit far back but they went a good gallop. It couldn’t have gone any better.

Labaik’s career had been blighted by truculence as he has twice refused to race and was hardly a willing runner when sixth at Naas last month.

Labaik benefited from a stealthy Kennedy ride as he only burst into contention after the long-time leader Cilaos Emery faded after the last flight.

The much-vaunted Melon turned in a really accomplished display for one so inexperienced, but Walsh’s partner could simply not live with the winner, who was providing Kennedy with a first Festival triumph. River Wylde finished third.

Elliott said: “It just all worked out today. I told Jack if he jumped off to just hunt around and ride him for a place.

“I’ve always said he’s our best work horse in the yard. I don’t care if he never jumps off again!”